While war raged in Lebanon throughout the month of July and death was a daily occurrence in Gaza, other regions in this war-torn part of the world also experienced weeks of torment and torture at the hands of the Israeli Military.
Among these regions is Nablus. A city filled with tragedy and the knowledge of how unjust and unforgiving the occupational forces can be. Invasions, incursions and curfews are not new to the people of Nablus, nor are the sights of bleeding children and mourning families.
Many people say if you want to know the Occupation of the West Bank and what it actually entails then you must go to Nablus and spend some days wandering in the Old City and surrounding districts talking to residents, nearly every one of whom have lost members of their family in the decade-long struggle against Occupation; you need to talk to the students of An Najar University and listen to their stories of suffering and how many difficulties they must overcome if they want to continue their education; you must let the sorrow of the city soak into your unconsciousness.
And so I went to Nablus and wandered the Old City streets and talked with families and with students and listened to their stories.
It was not the first time I had visited the city, but the first time I had spent more than a day there.
The people of Nablus are welcoming of a stranger into their streets. It is not so common for them to see foreigners there and many stop you to ask what you are doing in Nablus and how you see their city. It is a hard question to answer; you want to tell them about the beauty of the ancient stoned city and its unique geography, nestled in the valley of two imposing mountains, daring the northern slopes of one to build almost to its peak; but you can not, because this is not the feature that strikes you most noticeably as you enter the outskirts of Nablus.
You are first struck by the ruins of the Municipality building and the destruction of the as-yet un-rebuilt Mucata. You are struck by the houses, windowless and scarred with bullet holes that line every street you walk down; you are struck by the overwhelming feeling that this city has seen war again and again and has had no time of respite to begin to rebuild.
And how can you tell the eager residents of Nablus that all you see in their city is the ravaging signs of war and hardship and the heartbreaking signs of children with no future?
The latest of these fierce and deathly times has left numerous residents of Nablus dead and many more wounded.
It began in June when the Israeli army invaded the center of Nablus at midday. They came in twenty jeeps to arrest one man. On that day they shot three people dead and imposed a curfew on the whole of the city.
Since then they have been in the city every night and sometimes during the day.
They have killed civilians including two children 14 and 16 years old. They have totally demolished the Mucata and have bulldozed an apartment block that housed 9 families. They have invaded the refugee camps and have carried out assassinations against militants whose posters now cover the walls of every shop in the city.June, July August and September 2006
The streets now empty at 9 pm and the only sounds in the night time are those of gun-fire and explosions.
‘This is Nablus.’ My taxi driver said. This is the prison of the West Bank.
I was to speak with Fadi, a leader of the Al Aqsa Brigades in Nablus. A friend from Nablus had talked to Fadi and Fadi had agreed to speak with me on Saturday about his life and his resistance against the occupation.
But he is now dead.
I arrived in Nablus the day after he was assassinated by Israeli Special Forces.
The city salutes him and every shop displays his poster, prepared by himself for himself. He stands one-armed and defiant. He lost his right arm in the struggle a year ago.
I came too late to speak with him. So instead of his story I will write of him, as told me by his family, his friends and his city that is now mourning his death.
Ahmad is a medical relief worker and has worked as an ambulance doctor for three years. I met him by chance in a youth project office in the center of Nablus.
I asked him about the last month in the city and he shook his head and said it has been a ‘hell-of-a-time’. He has been evacuating wounded and dead people almost daily, the most heartbreaking of these he said was having to try and evacuate Fadi after he had been fatally injured.
It was late at night in the old city of Nablus.
Fadi was warned not to enter the old city, but he did and was shot by snipers.
He had a massive hole through his belly.
Ahmad told me how he tried to stop the bleeding by pressing two pillows against each side of Fadi’s body, but it was impossible to stop the bleeding and he and his two helpers were being shot at the whole time and the ambulance could not approach. His two friends were wounded.
‘Fadi was still alive. But he couldn’t speak. He just looked at us and pointed. I suppose he was telling us that he was going’
I asked Ahmad if he knew Fadi. He answered, yes, that he did and it was not the first time he had tried to evacuate him after an Israeli attack.
‘Once he had his whole insides hanging out of a horrible hole in his stomach and I had to push them back inside and he said ”thankyou Ahmad!” and there was the time when he had his arm blown off.
‘But this time was a nightmare. We were trying to drag him through the street and we were right in the sights of ten or so snipers sitting on the rooftops. I could see red laser beams all over my chest. I finally had to turn and run for cover and that is not an easy thing to do when you are a trained emergency worker.
After half an hour we managed to drag Fadi to a building, but by the time we reached the hospital he was already half-an-hour dead.
He was a good man. Ask anyone here.
‘Every one knew him and every one loved him.’
When evening came I wound my way up the mountain to a quiet sanctuary, surprising in such a battle-wearied city. The sanctuary is in the garden of an old woman who has been trained as a psychologist and spends her days working with the women of Nablus. Too often the bearers of tragedy.
‘The women must carry too much.’ She said. ‘Sometimes all their frustration and fear and torture come out of their hearts when they sit here in my small garden.’
We talked for hours and I never thought I could hear so many stories at once that would bring tears to my eyes.
‘.Can you imagine?’ she said, late in the evening. ‘That women come to me and talk and begin to cry and then to shout and then to beat the earth with their bear fists. Can you imagine what that is like?
When the mothers tell me about their sons taken from them. Killed in front of them, or arrested from their family home. Some mothers tell me that their fourteen or fifteen year old sons rush to them when the army arrives in their street and cry to them to hide them. Some say that their sons ask to be put back inside their bellies because they would be safe there.
Can you imagine this? Fifteen year old boys! And the world hears of them only as terrorists.’
One mother came to the sanctuary and for an hour sat on the stones and howled till her heart would break: ‘I could not hide him! I could not hide my son!’ She cried over and over again.
To us, arrest may not seem like the end of hope, but we do not know the reality of the arrest system in Palestine. The women of Nablus know.
They know that they will not hear news of their son for maybe 21 days after his arrest. They will not know if he is alive or dead. All they will know is that he will be facing interrogation and torture alone. That his court hearing will be held in Hebrew. That his charges will be kept in a ‘secret file’ and that they might not see their sons again until they are grown men. This they know.
‘And sometimes’ the old woman told me ‘the mother needs to cry her anguish, however heartbreaking it is.
‘One young woman is married to a wanted man. She comes to me because she has become useless. She can not sleep in the night and can not wake in the day. She lies in her bed because she is paralyzed with fear.
She has two daughters. The eldest started school today. Four days ago the young woman’s husband visited her with three new dresses for their daughter. The husband said he did not want anyone else to have to prepare his daughter for her first day at school. Later in the evening he sat with his young family and listened to his youngest girl singing a song he had taught her. He said to his wife quietly, ‘I don’t think I will hear this song again. He was killed yesterday.’
I knew then it was Fadi the old woman was telling me about. She stopped talking because she too was crying.
‘I loved him like a son’ she finally said; ‘and his wife like a daughter.’
She wept because however strong she is and however many tragedies she bares with her clients, she too sometimes needs to weep.
It was hard to sleep that night. I sat at the window and watched the sleeping city below me, wondering how many homes were nursing broken families and broken hearts.
I could see the ruined outlines of homes that had been bulldozed and could see the pile of rubble that had been the Mucata, razed to the ground three weeks before.
I realized that it would take months to hear the stories this city harbors, months before I could appreciate the depths of despair the people are driven to by the harshness of the occupation.
I wondered what future was in store for all the children I had seen that day rummaging through rubbish in the Old City because there is not even a school for them to go to. I found myself wondering at the little twelve year old boys I had seen running after the militants who roam the old city with guns slung over their shoulders, looking to them like they ought to be looking to their teachers.
I found myself asking the question if it was so very surprising that these youngsters turned to the military factions of the city and joined them, and by so doing, giving up any hope of a future except that of imprisonment or death at the hands of the Israeli forces.
Because that could well be their future anyway
I finally slept as the dawn call to prayer sounded over the city.
When I returned to Ramallah I knew that it was true about Nablus.
If you wander the streets of the Old City and listen to even a few of the tales that are imprisoned within it, you will understand better the reality of this occupation, and the sadness of the city will seep into your unconscious
‘But beware of becoming hopeless.even the women who cry in my garden grow strong again and return to their homes and continue to attend to their daily work. If they didn’t do this Israel would have destroyed us long ago.’
ELIZA ERNSHIRE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org